Despite extraordinary goaltending, Huskies lose 2-1 to Western Michigan in NCAA tournament

Devon Levi makes a save in Northeastern’s overtime loss to top-seeded Western Michigan on Friday.
Devon Levi made 34 saves in Northeastern’s overtime loss to top-seeded Western Michigan on Friday. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

WORCESTER, Mass.—It looked as though Devon Levi had extended Northeastern’s season in a miraculous way.

“I thought he made a great save,” admitted Luke Grainger, a Western Michigan sophomore. “Then I looked up and had some hope.”

He saw on the large video board what the referees were seeing on their review monitor. Grainger’s wraparound shot 1:33 into overtime had sneaked past the line under Levi’s right glove. In a heartbreaking span of moments, the Huskies’ initial celebration gave way to apprehension and then despair as they watched top-seeded Western Michigan celebrate its 2-1 victory in the opening round of the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship at DCU Center on Friday.

“They left it on the line,” said Jerry Keefe, the Hockey East Coach of the Year in his first season in charge of the Huskies. “We’re really proud of our guys. Not only did they compete, but we played a really good game. We got better and better and stuck to it and played for each other.”

The Huskies, seeded at the bottom of their four-team NCAA regional, recovered from a 1-0 deficit amid a discouraging opening period. They equalized on Aidan McDonough’s goal with 3:20 left in regulation. They came excruciatingly close to converting Levi’s 34 saves into an upset victory.

Northeastern had earned an NCAA at-large bid based on its first-ever Hockey East regular-season title. But the nation’s third-youngest team found itself in a difficult matchup against the explosive and experienced Broncos, who rank fourth nationally in scoring around their front-line trio of 24-year-olds, including Ethen Frank, who leads the nation with 26 goals.

Midway through the opening period, Frank was stopped by one of many sensational saves that Levi would make. But Frank made good on a second chance four minutes later with a steal at the Northeastern blue line. The ensuing relay moved as quickly as a double play in a baseball infield—from Frank to Drew Worrad ahead to Cole Gallant, who beat Levi to the far upper corner for a 1-0 Western Michigan lead. 

Northeastern would kill three penalties overall—only three teams in the nation are better in that area—and stifle Western Michigan’s explosive transition game. But the Huskies knew that wouldn’t be enough. They would need to turn their defense into scoring opportunities after being outshot 11-5 overall in the first 20 minutes. 

They responded with an obvious sense of purpose, launching repeated second-period attacks at Western Michigan’s goalie, Brandon Bussi. He was threatened on a power-play shot by McDonough, followed by a few waves of attempts that peaked with a Jack Hughes shot rebounded to Tommy Miller for a couple of pokes. But the 6-foot-5-inch Bussi was able to cover up.

Having withstood the onslaught, the Broncos nearly doubled their lead on a left-wing drive by Gallant. But Levi flicked it away to keep his Huskies within a goal entering the final period.

Their efforts paid off when McDonough forced overtime on a 56th-minute knockdown by Justin Hryckowian that was retained by Sam Colangelo in the Western Michigan zone. McDonough, gliding across the crease, forced a leg save by Bussi. McDonough pushed in the rebound for his team-leading 25th goal of the season—thereby extending the season for all Huskies everywhere.

“You can tell when we’re going to score,” McDonough said. “We usually have three or four lines that are rolling and setting each other up.”

The Huskies, now 13-7 in one-goal games over the past two seasons, were confident in their chances with Levi backing them in extra time. He’s a finalist for the Mike Richter Award that goes to the nation’s top goalie, he ranks among the top three at his position nationally, and he returned from his stint with Canada at the Beijing Olympics to finish the Huskies’ regular season with a 5-2 run (10 goals allowed) that secured their NCAA invitation.

Levi was exceptional, keeping the game tight so that his teammates could equalize at the other end. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

For all of that, no one was anticipating the extraordinary effort he made on the decisive play.

It began when Grainger knocked down an attempted clearance by Levi. Levi cut off his angle and watched as Grainger ducked behind goal. It was a race to the far side of the net and Grainger appeared to beat Levi there. He curled his shot around the post only to see Levi diving across the goalmouth to apparently stop the puck. Grainger shook his head, smiling as he stared in disbelief at the Northeastern goalie.

And then, not so long after, Grainger and his teammates were leaping and dancing.

This was Northeastern’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2019 and its eighth overall. The Huskies were seeking to advance for the first time since 1982, when they reached the Frozen Four in their NCAA tournament debut. Jim Madigan, the Northeastern athletic director, was a freshman on that memorable team. Instead, the celebration was reserved for Western Michigan, as it moved beyond the first round for the first time.

Keefe spoke of the leadership exhibited by Jordan Harris, Julian Kislin, and other seniors who had helped lead the Huskies back after their disappointing 2020-21 season. McDonough, a junior, spoke of the memories that will stay with him beyond this result. “This is the closest group I’ve been on at Northeastern,” he said.

He also wanted Levi to know how much his teammates appreciated him.

“We’re not in this game without him,” McDonough said. “He’s an unbelievable goaltender and an unbelievable person. I just feel bad for him because I know how much he cares about the boys. He’s the most selfless kid that I’ve ever met. There’s no need for him to hang his head.” 

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Northeastern's Sam Colangelo embraced Levi when it was over. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University